Lifetimes Out of Moments
A small boat crowded to the gunnels with journalists met the docking of Gertrude Stein’s steamship in New York. Her name ran like an illuminated rabbit around Times Square. Her picture appeared above columns of copy which included both quotes and feeble but funny imitations of her style. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas had been a big hit, and pieces of it had come out in The Atlantic Monthly. Now her caricature was flaunted in Vogue. There was money in nearly every mail. Three Lives had been reborn in the Modern Library. Strangers smiled when they met her figure on the street, moving like a stately tepee, and nodded to Miss Toklas, too. College students were charming; lecture halls were full; attentions were paid. She was called Gertrude because Americans were chummy, then Gertie because GIs were chummier. And Gertrude flew, for the first time, over mountains, deserts, lakes, plains, seeing American history, the scope of its geography. Reaching, like Balboa, the Pacific, Stein went west, as she said, in her head, as we each did, obedient to our destiny, though San Francisco, where her father had investments in a cable-car company, felt as strange as foreign money. She liked to sample regional food and be fed by the rich, although in Iowa she asked for Vichy water and got tap.
Let me quote: “Then we arrived in Saint Louis. We ate very well there. I was interested in Saint Louis, and it was enormous the houses and the gardens and every way everything looked, everything looked enormous in Saint Louis. They asked us what we would like to do and I said I would like to see all the places Winston Churchill had mentioned in The Crisis.” [f.n. This Winston Churchill’s ten novels sold about 500,000 copies each. The British press reviewed him as if their Winston not ours had written them. The two met once but did not get on.] To continue: “They were very nice about it only it was difficult to do because naturally they should have but they really did not know a lot about what Winston Churchill mentioned in The Crisis. . . . . We found the Mississippi River . . . and some of the homes and then we gave it up and went on to see something that they could find . . . the house of Ulysses Grant.”
Gertrude Stein had begun—she liked to begin things in February—as a pampered baby girl whom her father described as “a little schnatterer. She talks all day long and so plainly. She’s such a round little pudding, toddles around the whole day and repeats everything that’s said or done.” At least she hadn’t been a boy. “What is the point,” she said, “of being born a boy when you’re only going to grow up to be a man.” She grew herself into a homely girl, a homely Jewish girl, a queer homely Jewish girl, in time a queer homely Jewish woman, and finally into a bizarre avant-garde gay Jewish woman writer known in Paris, her hometown abroad, as the Mother Goose of Montparnasse.
She was homely, but also disinclined, so she got out from under men. “Menace” was made of men with an ace up their sleeve. Her father finally died and she was freed of her family. “Then life without father began,” she said, “a very pleasant one.” Her overbearing brother Leo took her under his smotherly wing until Alice Toklas, who could cook, came along, whereupon her bossy brother left for Florence with Cézanne’s apples and a lot of lovely drawings.
So when, nearly sixty, she shook the hand of her fame in New York, she knew she had arrived; the identity she had worked on for so long was complete: She was Gertrude Stein; she had a wife; she drove a motorcar; she had a fortune invested in Picasso and Company; she had her own course of life and could tell Ernest Hemingway where to get off. Yet all the applause, the circulating lights, those nervous hosts and earnest meals, made her uneasy. “I write for myself and strangers,” she had once said, but now there were too many strangers who cried hi!, who knew what she wore and the waddle of her walk, but didn’t know what Vichy water was. “I am I,” she wrote in disgust, “because my little dog knows me.” Well, the nose was enough for the mastiff of Ulysses. Yet the self she had struggled so long and hard to define could be pictured on an ID: Her passport and her driver’s license proved she was she, the way our credit does now, the dog tag our corpse, as our social security number certifies us or our mother’s maiden name. She had become—for she knew her philosophy—the sum of her adjectives like an apple being peeled by Bishop Berkeley, and she could be duplicated by anyone who claimed to have the same set of properties the way a spy assumes another’s identity.
Suddenly she was no longer certain who had written her books, for the Gertrude Stein on their spine was but a bit of history, a tabloid tidbit; her snows of yesteryear would be carted away in dump trucks; dust would close her eyes as well as it had Helen’s and brightness would fall from the air to run down drains. Had this overweight gay girl written The Making of Americans? Was Tender Buttons Jewish? Three Lives a stop on a Baltimore bus? How could such a local lady fall under the spell of Henry James or Sophocles—genders, nations, ages, worlds away? In an essay she called “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” she addressed the problem. Why would her work, which had circulated only when friends gave away their copies, manage to endure, when the novels of St. Louis’s Winston Churchill, whose sales were in millions, would scarcely survive two decades?
Because they had been written, not by Human Nature and all the causes and conditions of our Identities, but by the Human Mind. “I am not I any longer when I see” was a better way to put it. To understand is to step into eternity. All flesh is grass, Isaiah wrote, where pigeons light occasionally, but the spirit is immensely and immeasurably present in every word of a masterpiece, which is why we—when we read—are spirits too, and recognize our kin. Human nature was incapable of objectivity, she decided. It is viciously anthropocentric, whereas the human mind leaves all personal interest behind. It sees things as entities, not as identities . . . The human mind makes lifetimes out of moments, particulars into generalities, quirks into characters. The human mind can entice human nature into Elysium; though it can do nothing with the quaint, for, as Stein said, quaint ain’t . . . yet we are all witness to that transformation, when the human mind sips the tea and tastes the biscuit, to turn the simple offer: Have some? into a summation; for we’ve seen how a paltry pun, a phrase, those perceptions personal to style, how the right writing can drag daily life in its drudgery and exhilaration, with its restless elevators, its solemn ceremonies, from one present tense to another and another and another—for today my little dog did deign to know me, and though I was not a warrior returning in rags, I was a warrior returning in rags; a saucer enabled my cup to warm my fingers, and I felt an old friend on the lip of a story, for Gertrude Stein, as so often, was right: Every rhyme in Mother Goose is still well with us, and so, for that matter, is the Mother Goose of Montparnasse.